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On Willful Ignorance

October 2nd, 2006 Posted in Curmudgeonry

I’m 30,000 feet above vast stretches of empty American land, thinking about how our legislators want to protect us from Mexicans willing to do the work we’re too fat and lazy to do for ourselves, and I’m wishing we could make a swap: one Mexican family for every elected U.S. official. Only then might I get enthusiastic about building a 700-mile fence along the southern border of the land of freedom and opportunity. Then it occurs to me that such a swap would be an awfully un-Christian thing to do to the Mexicans, who already have enough corrupt and bloated public officials without adding our snake’s nest of panderers and preeners.

I just finished the co-authored autobiography of Haing Ngor, who some of you may recognize as the Cambodian refugee who won an Oscar for playing fellow refugee Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. I think that in the back of my mind, while I’ve always found Marxist intellectuals repugnant in the same sense that I find any deluded and sloppy thinker repugnant — allowing me, for example, to hold Ann Coulter and Michael Moore in near-equal esteem — I always thought them quaint. I’ve done a mental housecleaning in the past couple of years, as you can tell from other posts, and with it has come a growing and harsh disdain for the willfully ignorant. After I put down this heartbreaking book I realized that anyone who continues to insist, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that forced communism with its attendant delusions (atheism, nihilism, etc.) does not lead inevitably to enormous tragedy can only persist in this lie through a considerable act of self-deception.

We are all ignorant of many things, and if one has a scrap of wisdom and humility, one must forgive honest ignorance just as each of us hopes his own is forgiven. But there is a different brand of ignorance, worn with near-pride by some, that can only be sustained if nurtured and protected, like a fragile but poisonous plant. In simplest form it’s the studious ignorance of scores of U.S. legislators who refuse to understand fundamental economics. In its most venomous form it is the ignorance that produces wholesale slaughter of people deemed the wrong skin color or religion or economic class.

Ngor endured the latter, in 1970’s Cambodia, where the brutal Marxist Khmer Rouge briefly seized power and murdered a quarter of the population. As I read it, I found myself wondering how far we are from such tragedy. How long does it take for institutionalized ignorance and abandonment of truth to descend from relatively mild corruption and inefficiency to full-scale slaughter? How deeply do nihilism and anti-intellectualism have to penetrate a nation before the soil is ripe for the ultimate fruition of these seeds sewn in willful ignorance?

I also wondered how many deaths can be traced to the professors of French and American universities who had such a strong hand in educating the likes of Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. And further, how many deaths would be enough for deluded intellectual thugs like Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm to renounce their comfortable positions and live the remainder of their dreadful existences in seclusion. I suspect more blood than exists would sway neither, nor their less intelligent compatriots, because in the face of willful ignorance, evidence has no import. War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength.

Ngor survived multiple torture sessions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who wanted him to confess to being a doctor. In that world, everything Western or intellectual had to be purged. This was the ironic conclusion reached by the dictators educated at the feet of Western intellectuals — that enlightenment itself was the enemy. Their armies were the thousands of uneducated peasants who envied the wealth of city-dwellers, and who took great pleasure in tormenting their new slaves.

Pseudo-intellectuals skilled in the rhetoric of envy, leading hordes of the ill-educated taught that they have a grievance against the producers of wealth — no, that could never happen here.

Ngor met an end that was tragic and shameful. Though he lost nearly all his family to the Khmer Rouge, he survived, made it to America, and not only became an actor but an important figure in Cambodian relief efforts. And for years he wore around his neck a gold locket with the only picture of his dead wife inside. One evening in 1995, three thugs in a Los Angeles alley mugged him, and when he refused to give them this last reminder of his beloved, they shot him in the chest, took the locket, and left him to die. Ironically, all three were Asians, imitators of the homegrown thug culture celebrated by rappers and idiot suburban teenagers.

No, it could never happen here.

For decades American historians have debated whether the United States has an “exceptional” culture that effectively immunizes it against the philosophical nonsense that has wafted up from Europe since the 19th century, or whether suppression of radicals has been all that restrains the forces of utopianism from having their sway here as they have elsewhere. I’d like to think that we are exceptional, but I suppose Haing Ngor once thought so as well. I suspect every human being living in peace and comfort has told himself the same thing, that it could never happen here. And yet it continues to happen: war and oppression and profound human misery, and we in the West tell ourselves such things only happen in other places.

I’ve typed three concluding paragraphs, but each only leads to more paragraphs. Apparently I have a lot more to say about this and related topics. It seems terribly unkind to inflict a diatribe of this length on you after such a long absence, however, so I’ll opt for an abrupt ending. And I promise to write more frequently, now that my summer sabbatical has ended.

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